A crucial first step is to break our eyes out of the patterns of seeing we’re so used to employing at museums. “Classical sculptures are in a sense very familiar,” says Ruth Allen, a graduate researcher who curated the show along with James Cahill. “You almost don’t really look at them anymore—they’re so iconic.” To this end, the Scottish-born artist REILLY has digitally collaged the immaculate forms of ancient sculptures with contemporary celebrities like Michael Jackson and Rihanna. Inserting instantly recognizable faces into ancient iconography, he does “a good job of pulling the viewer up short and making us look at the ancient work that is incorporated into the new composite image,” Allen notes.
Today, the ancient sculptures that have survived are primarily made from white stone, and are often seen as symbols of white male power. (Many don’t know that these works were originally painted in bright, garish colors.) REILLY’s work also reminds us, as Allen explains, that “the Greek and Roman worlds were a more multiracial world than we think.” Some of the gods that these ancient civilizations worshiped have been suggested to be Near-East imports, and thus evidence of the extent to which Greece and Rome, today seen by some as the “Western ideal,” were profoundly influenced by Mediterranean, Middle- and Near-Eastern, and African cultures. It is possible to see these sculptures as more than just white marble, and in a way that complicates Western art history.